PHILADELPHIA. — Joel Embiid envisioned winning an NBA championship with James Harden at his side. Embiid has a new idea of how to win one with the 76ers — play his former teammate and the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA Finals.
“He’s on the losing side of it,” Embiid said with a laugh. “We’re on the winning side of it.”
Embiid and the 76ers are relieved they are no longer tethered to the daily Harden soap opera that has enveloped the franchise since the summer.
The 76ers traded Harden this week to the Clippers for a package of players and draft picks, ending the promise of two NBA MVPs chasing a championship in Philly.
“He got what he wanted,” Embiid said.
The Sixers did, too.
They are, perhaps for the first time since former guard Ben Simmons issued his trade demand in 2021, a complete team without the headaches that come along with All-Stars bellyaching about their role, their contract, their feelings inside the locker room.
The 76ers are perhaps an uncalled travel away in the season opener from being 4-0. As it is, the 76ers are 3-1 with Embiid putting up numbers like a player intent on defending his MVP crown. Tyrese Maxey has blossomed into the true, unselfish No. 2 role that Harden never really embraced over 79 regular-season games. And Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. are playing more like pivotal contributors rather than oft-forgotten role players.
Harden took some parting shots at the Sixers on Thursday in Los Angeles with the 10-time All-Star saying the team had him “on a leash” in his short stint. Harden complained he didn’t get enough credit in Philly for sacrificing millions on his last contract in the summer of 2022 so the team had enough money to spend on free agents. And he said under former coach Doc Rivers, the Sixers didn’t play an offense that fit his ball-dominant, freelance-style of offense.
“I’m not a system player,” Harden said. “I am a system.”
Embiid scoffed at the notion that Harden — who fell out of favor among Philly fans with a combined 22 points in Games 6 and 7 second-round playoff losses last season to Boston — was hamstrung by the Sixers’ scheme.
“We gave him the ball every single possession to just go out and do his thing,” Embiid said. “From there, he had to make decisions as far as getting guys open or looking out for himself. I thought he did a pretty good job just getting us into an offense.»
If the Sixers missed Harden, it sure didn’t seem like it in the locker room.
The Sixers beat Toronto on Thursday night in a game where almost everyone contributed. Embiid had 28 points, 13 boards and seven assists. Harris and Oubre each scored 23. Maxey had 18.
Harden’s nameplate was, of course, removed from his locker and there wasn’t a shred of his merchandise found in team stores on the Wells Fargo Center concourse. Not even on the discount rack.
Embiid, though, noted how it’s still kind of hard to imagine how much more of a threat the 76ers might have been with a healthy, happy, well-paid Harden still on the roster.
“That was out of our control,” Embiid said. “In that situation, you’ve got to roll with it. But I still believe we have a chance. We are right there. Especially with the team we have right now.”
Sixers coach Nick Nurse was hired in the summer and soon found himself trying to navigate the murky Harden waters — the guard publicly called team president Daryl Morey a liar to ignite the dissension.
Harden opted in to the final year of his contract to try and force a trade, was late to training camp and had hit-and-miss participation at practice — with little inclination to actually really play — all while Nurse was trying to implement his style and get to know his new team.
While Nurse publicly said all the right things ahead of the trade about welcoming Harden back, he admitted Thursday that he never truly believed he would coach Harden.
“I think that I thought the chances were pretty low,” Nurse said. «When he opted in, I said, ‘OK, we get a chance to coach him.’ Then the stuff happened and I went, ‘Oh’. Up and down, up and down a little bit. There were times, yeah, when I thought for sure. Then he showed up in practice.
«I will say this, he was in shape, worked extremely hard, was extremely professional while he was here and he looked awesome. He really did, while he was here. We just never got to the game part of it all.”
Embiid said Harden was never really a distraction — “guys have been focused knowing we’re still good enough” — and wished him well in Los Angeles.
“I think he did a lot of great things for us,” Embiid said. “But the notion of misuse, maybe that might have been coming the way he felt with the coaching staff. But in my opinion, I just feel like we just allowed him to be himself. We gave him the ball every single possession because he is really good. He’s an amazing player.”
Just not in Philly anymore.